Race Matters

Last night at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, a large group of students, professors, and other folks gathered to watch the documentary “Race to Execution.” Rachel Lyon’s film is a powerful documentary that “explores the deep and disturbing link between race and the death penalty in America.” It focuses on two specific cases, Madison Hobley of Chicago and Robert Tarver of Russell County, Alabama and “interweaves their compelling personal stories together with groundbreaking scholarship.” Tarver received the death penalty due to an Alabama statute which allowed the presiding judge to overrule the jury’s decision for life in prison without parole.

There are many out there that would like to believe that race has nothing to do with the death penalty. I’m sorry, but those people need to remove themselves from LaLa land and enter the city limits of Realityville. Race is an issue not solely with the death penalty, but an underlying issue with our justice system as a whole.

Consider the following facts:
-Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (80%) have been executed for killing white victims, although whites make up 50% percent of homicide victims.
-98% of District Attorneys nationwide are white. These are the people who decide whether or not to seek the death penalty by their power of discretion.
-In Tennessee, 25% of African-Americans sentenced to death were condemned by all-white juries.
-African Americans make up 40% of Tennessee’s death row population but only 17% of its total population.
-The US Supreme Court has even admitted that racial discrimination in the death penalty system is a
-You are 3 times more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim is white

DISCLAIMER: I am not proclaiming that the folks involved in the process, e.g., lawyers, DAs, judges, juries, are racist. Again, I am not stating/insinuating that these folks are racist. However, these facts show disturbing correlations that there is more value (value as in a death sentence) placed on a victim that is white. Furthermore, one is at a much higher risk if they are black and the victim is white. Facts are facts.

Those present at the documentary showing in Sewanee were affected, some were moved to tears. After the film, I took part in a three person panel discussion including a Constitutional law Professor and Leslie Lytle, Board Member of TCASK and Executive Director of the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace. We fielded some excellent questions from bright students. The event was a major success. TCASK Student Board Member Jelena Milojevic did an outstanding job putting together this successful event.

I have come across a powerful and somewhat controversial statement that some black Civil Rights leaders are contending. Some have said that “prisons are the new plantations.” I won’t put forth how I feel about that statement. However, I will continue to vehemently contend that in regards to the death penalty, race matters; the race of the perpetrator and the race of the victim have a massive play in the initial trial; but more importantly, the utilization of a sentence of death.

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